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Law school expands student pro bono program

Thursday, March 21, 2019   (0 Comments)
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By Karlene Kuhn

In January of 2018, Alexander Blewett III School of Law at the University of Montana implemented a school-wide Pro Bono Program to bridge the gap between the classroom and real-world experience. Students are encouraged to provide law-related services for organizations that increase access to justice for low-income Montanans. Students have answered the call by serving as Hearing Officers for Missoula Housing Authority, volunteering at the Self-Help Law Center, and volunteering at the law school’s monthly Free Family Law Clinic, among others.

The Pro Bono Program began as a classroom requirement in the law school’s required Professional Responsibility course, which every student must take in the second semester of their second year. Dean Paul Kirgis and faculty supervisor Professor Jordan Gross were fundamental in expanding this classroom requirement into the school-wide program it is today. Now, with institutional support, the program has grown to include a first-year student introduction, clinics across the state, and various professional development opportunities for students.

“Supporting pro bono service is an institutional priority and reflects a shared community value,” Kirgis said. “By pairing students with local community agencies we are able to engage our students in real world service while meeting some of the community’s greatest needs.”

To kick off the Program’s first full year, the Student Bar Association and the Pro Bono Program co-hosted a Pro Bono Fair in October. The fair featured 12 community partners: the American Civil Liberties Union, Associated Students of the University of Montana, Community Dispute Resolution Center, the Court Appointed Special Advocates program, Crowley Fleck, the in-house Indian Law and Veterans Advocacy Clinics, the Missoula Housing Authority, Montana Innocence Project, Montana Legal Services Association, the State Bar of Montana, and the Missoula Self-Help Law Center. More than fifty students signed up for information about specific pro bono opportunities at the Pro Bono Fair. Since the fair, 65 students have attended pro bono trainings hosted by law school partners.

In addition to connecting students to community-based organizations, the law school has collaborated with MLSA to provide a monthly Free Family Law Clinic on campus. Students who participate in the clinic meet face to face with clients, conducting initial client intake, observing legal advice appointments, and debriefing with volunteer attorneys. This high-impact opportunity is a favorite among students, with all available opportunities for the fall term being booked within 20 minutes of the initial call for volunteers. And it’s no wonder the free Family Law Clinic is so popular – the clinic has received incredible feedback from students and clients alike. One student said, “Participating reminded me why I came to law school. It was incredibly moving to remember that the law is about helping people in need.” Clients have been equally impressed by the services provided, leaving glowing reviews. One client wrote of her experience, “Thank you so much. You have given me hope. I truly appreciate this experience.” During the two Free Family Law Clinics hosted by the law school during the fall term, 12 students and seven attorneys (including four UM graduates and three faculty members) served 21 clients.

The law school’s partnership with MLSA has continued to grow with the overwhelming student interest. Now, students can volunteer at both the on-campus clinics and at a monthly Free Family Law Clinic hosted at MLSA offices. In addition to these short-term pro bono assignments, MLSA has also created three new internships to support student pro bono activities. Students applied and interviewed for these positions in December 2018 and began their internships in January 2019.
The Pro Bono Program encourages each student to complete a benchmark number of hours. Each student who reaches the annual benchmark receives a Dean’s Pro Bono Recognition Certificate; students who complete a minimum of 150 hours of pro bono work receive a Pro Bono Honors designation. Two students have already reached honors designation: Jaclyn Van Natta and Lucas Wagner, both third-year law students. Since the program’s inception, more than 80 students have participated in the Pro Bono Program. Among those, 62 have tracked their pro bono service, logging over 1,600 hours working on 19 different projects.

The law school is always looking for new partnerships, and we are particularly interested in growing our relationship with the private bar. If you or your firm have pro bono projects that you think may be a good fit for law student support, please reach out. In addition to firm-sponsored projects, attorneys in private practice are welcome to volunteer at the clinics to advise clients and mentor Montana’s newest generation of lawyers. It is a great way to stay involved with the law school while serving your community through pro bono.

If you are interested in learning more about the Pro Bono Program, discussing potential pro bono projects, or volunteering at one of the upcoming Free Family Law Clinics, please contact Karlene Kuhn, Pro Bono Coordinator, at 406-243-4266 or ProBonoCoordinator@mso.umt.edu.

Karlene Kuhn is the Pro Bono Coordinator at the Alexander Blewett III School of Law and a Justice for Montanans AmeriCorps member.